Fidel Castro, who led a Cuban revolution that made his Caribbean island a potent symbol of the 20th-century ideological and economic divisions, and whose embrace of communism and the former Soviet Union put the world at the risk of nuclear war, died Nov. 25. He was 90.
His death was announced on Cuban state TV by his younger brother, Raúl Castro, who succeeded Fidel 10 years ago as the country’s leader. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed, but Castro had been in failing health for several years.
The son of a prosperous sugar planter, Castro took power in Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959, promising to share his nation’s wealth with its poorest citizens, who had suffered under the corrupt quarter-century dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Castro, a romantic figure in olive-drab fatigues and combat boots, chomping monstrous cigars through a bushy black beard, became a spiritual beacon for the world’s political far left.
To his legion of followers, Castro was a hero who demanded a fair deal for the world’s poor and wasn’t afraid to point his pistol at the powerful to get it. His admirers said he educated, fed and provided health care to his own people, as well as to the poor in other countries, more fairly and generously than the world’s wealthy nations, most notably what he called the “Colossus to the north.”
He remained one of world’s longest-serving heads of state, controlling his island nation just 90 miles from U.S. shores for nearly five decades. In his homeland, Castro was as loathed as he was beloved. He was among the world’s most repressive leaders, a self-appointed president-for-life who banned free speech, freedom of assembly and a free press and executed or jailed thousands of political opponents.
He abolished Christmas as an official holiday for nearly 30 years. While he dispatched Cuban-educated doctors and Cuban-developed vaccines to the poorest corners of Latin America, Cubans in central Havana found pharmacy shelves empty of medicine, and many lived in apartments in which they used buckets in their kitchens as toilets.
With almost theatrical relish, Castro taunted 10 successive U.S. presidents, who viewed the Cuban leader variously as a potential courier of Armageddon, a blowhard nuisance, a dangerous dictator, a fomenter of revolution around Latin America, a serial human rights abuser or an irrelevant sideshow who somehow hung on after the collapse of communism almost everywhere else.
Castro’s long reign began to unravel on July 31, 2006, when he temporarily transferred power to his 75-year-old brother, Raúl, after undergoing what he described as intestinal surgery. (The precise nature of Castro’s health problems was an official state secret.) The transfer of power came weeks before Castro’s 80th birthday on Aug. 13, and Castro was not seen in public again for nearly four years.
He formally resigned on Feb. 19, 2008, in a statement read on national television by a spokesman, ending his 49-year reign and giving George W. Bush the distinction of being the first U.S. president to outlast Castro in power.
The National Assembly officially – and unanimously – named Raúl Castro, the longtime head of the Cuban armed forces, as the country’s new president. The move was seen as deeply anticlimactic, because Castro had stage-managed the shift to his brother for the better part of two years.
Beginning in the 1960s, the United States maintained a strict trade and diplomatic embargo against Cuba, hoping to drive Castro from power. In 2014, President Obama – the first U.S. president elected in the post-Fidel era – announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Havana. During a visit to Cuba in March 2016, Obama met Raúl Castro but made no effort to meet his brother. Fidel Castro later delivered a speech, dismissing Obama’s overtures and denouncing the idea of cooperation with the United States.
Tweaking the “imperialists” was always a passion of Castro’s. He built an enormous public demonstration space – complete with stage lighting and sound – outside the U.S. diplomatic mission on the Malecon, Havana’s main seaside boulevard. There, he regularly led anti-American rallies and delivered the lengthy speeches for which he was famous.
He was a particular thorn to President John F. Kennedy, who approved the clumsy Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 by a ragtag group of CIA-trained fighters, which became a humiliating low point of his presidency.
To his benefactors in the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War, Castro was the useful commander of a communist citadel on the doorstep of the United States. That point was drawn in terrifyingly stark terms during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when Castro allowed the Soviets to base on his soil missiles that could carry nuclear warheads to Washington or New York in minutes. The resulting showdown between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was the closest the world has come to nuclear war.
Unlike many other communist leaders around the world, Castro did not create monuments to himself or lend his name to streets and buildings. Instead, he erected billboards carrying patriotic slogans of the revolution, such as “We will overcome!,” “Toward victory, always!” and “Motherland or death!”
Under his reign, Havana eventually became something of a Marxist Disneyland – a shiny, happy veneer over something much uglier.
Castro personally ordered the restoration of Old Havana, an architectural gem where tourists can savor $300 boxes of Cuban cigars, some of the world’s best music and sweet Havana Club rum – the proceeds of which went to Castro’s revolution. But just a block behind the restored facades, impoverished Cubans lived in crumbling homes on rationed food. Teenage prostitutes openly offered their services to tourists.
In his later years, Castro enjoyed a resurgence in popularity across much of Latin America, fueled in part by the election of several leaders inspired by his staunch anti-Americanism.
In particular, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela viewed Castro as a political beacon and father figure to the Latin American left. Sweetheart oil deals from Chávez, until his death in March 2013, were crucial to Cuba’s ability to survive as its state-dominated economy sputtered.
While many Cubans expressed genuine and deep loyalty to Fidel – he was never called “Castro” in his homeland – others clearly feared a leader who imprisoned tens of thousands of his enemies over the years, often on little more than a whim.
As he aged, Castro acted more like a man intent on purifying his legacy, returning his revolution to its ideological core, reversing economic openings and stepping up attacks on political dissent. He imprisoned Cubans whose crimes were as simple as passing out books on democracy.
Many Cubans would not offer criticism of their leader for fear of being overheard by government informants, who lived on practically every block. To indicate Castro, they would tug on an imaginary beard. Other residents accepted him as a simple fact of life, like the tropical humidity – what good would it do to complain?
The most pointed condemnations came from Cubans who fled Castro’s rule by the thousands every year. Those with enough money paid for speedboat trips across the Florida Straits, while the poorest attempted the dangerous trip in rickety boats. Some would-be émigrés refitted Cuba’s aging American-made cars and trucks, transforming them into unlikely boats.
After Raúl Castro assumed power, he embarked on a plan of economic liberalization that has been more symbolic than substantial. Private enterprise is permitted in a few small segments, such as food service and repair shops, but the military-led government still controls as much as 80 percent of the economy.
Castro slowed noticeably in his final years. He had long ago given up cigars and rum, and his beard faded from thick and black to scraggly and gray. In June 2001, he appeared to faint while giving one of his weekly Saturday speeches.
Then, in October 2004, he fell and broke a kneecap and an arm. Those events were the first time most Cubans had seen physical weakness from Castro, who had long worn military fatigues and shown an outward vigor, sometimes joining in countryside baseball games. From that point on, his public appearances became more infrequent.
Castro’s low profile intensified speculation about the “biological solution” that many Cuban exiles in Miami and other foes had so long hoped for. But as pundits and Cuba experts repeatedly and wrongly predicted his imminent demise, Castro would answer by appearing in photographs with visiting heads of state, or with blog posts, essays or other messages reminding his people that his detractors had it wrong again.
David Scott Palmer, a Cuba scholar at Boston University, said in a 2009 interview that Castro seemed to be preparing his country for his eventual death and “skillfully managing his own departure.”
Castro returned to the public eye in July 2010. Trading his familiar fatigues for a tracksuit, he appeared on live Cuban television, looking thin and weak. Rather than addressing Cuba’s deepening economic woes, he gave what amounted to a lecture to the United States on the dangers of nuclear confrontation with Iran and on the Korean Peninsula. His halting and wandering address was aimed at world leaders more than ordinary Cubans and seemed designed to burnish his legacy.
Castro appeared to be a “stuttering old man with quivering hands,” Cuban writer Yoani Sánchez wrote in The Washington Post, describing the reaction of Cubans at seeing the once-seemingly invincible leader.
“We had already started to remember him as something from the past, which was a noble way to forget him,” she wrote in August 2010. “In recent weeks, he who was once called The One, the Horse or simply He, has been presented to us stripped of his captivating charisma. Although he is once again in the news, it has been confirmed: Fidel Castro, fortunately, will never return.”
– – –
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born Aug. 13, 1926, at Las Manacas, his family’s plantation in the village of Biran in eastern Cuba’s Oriente province.
His father, Ángel Castro, was born in Spain and went to Cuba as a soldier in the Spanish army. He became a laborer on a railway owned by the United Fruit Co. Soon he was clearing land for himself in the wilds of Oriente and growing sugar cane, which he sold to the fruit company. In time, Las Manacas comprised 26,000 acres, of which almost 2,000 were owned by the elder Castro.
As a child, Fidel Castro was well off but nowhere near as wealthy as some of the boys at the schools to which he was sent, including the prestigious Colegio de Belen, a Jesuit school in Havana.
Behind his back, he was sometimes called guajiro, or peasant. In his authoritative 1986 biography of Castro, author Tad Szulc quoted this assessment from Enrique Ovares, an old friend of Fidel’s: “I think that the worst damage Fidel’s parents did him was to put him in a school of wealthy boys without Fidel being really rich . . . and more than that without having a social position. . . . I think that this influenced him and he had hatred against society people and moneyed people.”
Castro entered the University of Havana in 1945. Perhaps applying his firsthand experience of social and economic inequality, he immersed himself in the legacy of Cuba’s bygone revolutionaries.
Since 1898, when the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor sparked the Spanish-American War, the country had often had tumultuous relations with the United States. Castro concluded that casting off U.S. hegemony was more important to Cuba than mere prosperity.
He joined the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union and began to carry a pistol. In 1947, he signed up for an abortive expedition to free the Dominican Republic from the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. In 1948, he went to Colombia to protest a meeting of the Pan-American Union, which was reorganizing into the Organization of American States.
Castro received his law degree at the University of Havana in 1950 and set up a practice in the capital city. Two years later, he ran for a seat in the Cuban congress on the ticket of the Ortodoxo Party, a reform group. His campaign was cut short on March 10, 1952, when Batista staged a coup and retook the presidency he first held in the 1940s.
Even as a young man, Castro showed a remarkable ability to persuade people to join him in seemingly impossible tasks – such as his wild scheme to take over the army’s Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.
Castro’s plan was to distribute arms from the barracks to his supporters and overthrow Batista. Castro was not deterred by the fact that the garrison numbered more than 1,000 soldiers and that he fielded only about 120 followers.
The July 26, 1953, assault went off with almost comic mismanagement. The contingent with most of the arms got lost in the city’s old quarter, and Castro’s men rushed into what they thought was an arsenal, only to discover that it was a barbershop. Without firing a single shot himself, Castro called a retreat. He and most of the others were captured.
Through the intercession of a bishop who was a friend of his father, Castro was spared immediate execution and was instead put on trial. Although the court proceeding was held in secret, it gave Castro, who acted as his own attorney, the chance to make what became the most famous speech of his life. It concluded with the words that became known to generations of Cuban schoolchildren: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Castro was sentenced to 15 years but was released after less than two under an amnesty declared by Batista. He then moved to Mexico City, where he continued his work with a group calling itself the 26th of July Movement, commemorating the date of the Moncada assault, which became known as the opening salvo of the Cuban revolution.
The Moncada debacle and its aftermath also brought an end to Castro’s first marriage. In October 1948, he had married Mirta Diaz-Balart, the daughter of a well-to-do family with close ties to Batista and U.S. business interests. In 1949, they had a son – Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, known as Fidelito. After their divorce in 1955, Castro’s former wife settled in Spain and remarried. He raised their son in Cuba.
On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro and 81 followers returned to Cuba from Mexico aboard a secondhand yacht called “Granma,” whose name was later adopted by the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba. All but 12 in the landing party were killed or captured almost immediately. Castro, his brother Raúl and an Argentine physician, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, escaped into the mountains and began organizing a guerrilla army.
In the summer of 1958, Batista launched a major offensive against Castro’s ragtag group. When it failed, it was clear that Batista’s days in power were numbered. He announced to a few close colleagues at a New Year’s Eve party in 1958 that he was leaving the country, and Castro and his followers triumphantly drove into Havana to take control of the country on Jan. 1, 1959.
He drew support from many intellectuals during the early years of his rule. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, a Castro hero and longtime resident of Cuba; authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel García Márquez; and Bob Dylan, the troubadour of the American counterculture.
When Castro took power, he preached democracy and reform. He sought to assuage his critics, insisting that he was not a communist. A wary United States cautiously offered economic aid, which Castro refused.
Economic and political relations grew increasingly more difficult, particularly when it became known that the new regime imprisoned thousands of political opponents and executed many others. Within two years, Castro had expropriated $1.8 billion in U.S. property without compensation and turned Cuba into a bastion of Marxism-Leninism.
In May 1960, Cuba established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which was soon supplying most of the island’s petroleum needs, as well as a constant flow of weapons and other military hardware. The government nationalized U.S. and British oil refineries and U.S.-owned banks. In October 1960, the U.S. government imposed an embargo on all trade with the island except for food and medicine.
On Jan. 3, 1961, diplomatic relations with the United States were broken. This set the stage for one of Castro’s greatest triumphs: the defeat of the CIA-organized invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, which U.S. intelligence officials thought would set off a popular revolt against Castro. The invasion by about 1,350 CIA-trained fighters was put down by Cuban military forces, and about 1,200 of the invaders were captured.
The following year, Castro abetted the nuclear confrontation between Washington and Moscow, which ended when Khrushchev agreed to withdraw Soviet-made missiles and promised not to use Cuba as a base for offensive weapons. In return, the United States pledged not to invade Cuba and to remove missiles it had stationed in Turkey.
The U.S. promise to forgo force after the Cuban missile crisis was a major victory for Castro, but for years he lived under the threat of various CIA assassination plots. He cited U.S. threats to justify a large-scale military buildup, and he tried to export a Cuban-style revolution to countries across Latin America, including Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia. (Guevara was killed leading an uprising in Bolivia in 1967.)
In the mid-1970s, Castro sent thousands of troops to wars in Angola and Ethiopia. In addition, Cuban military training missions and thousands of physicians and teachers operated in more than a dozen other countries, from West Africa to North Korea.
After Castro provided economic and military assistance to the leftist government of Grenada in the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan argued that an airport under construction on the island would be used to support communists in Central America. In 1983, Reagan ordered an invasion, which left 19 U.S. troops and 24 Cubans dead. It was the only time that U.S. and Cuban troops faced each other in battle.
– – –
One of Castro’s first economic acts in 1959 was to start an industrialization program. By producing their own steel and other products, Cubans could end their longtime economic dependence on sugar and tobacco.
He promised that the standard of living would rise faster than anywhere else in the world. The plans failed, and food rationing began in 1961.
In 1968, Castro ordered a “revolutionary offensive” in which 50,000 small businesses were nationalized, causing the economy to grind to a virtual halt. He abolished Christmas as a national holiday in 1969, saying it interfered with the sugar harvest.
Cuba began to enjoy better times in the 1980s, thanks to huge subsidies from Moscow, which sent cars, food, fuel and fertilizer to keep the island’s economy afloat. But the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse meant calamity for Cuba.
In 1990, Castro called for austerity measures. Rationing was increased, and industrial enterprises were cut back or shut down as Cuban workers were shifted to agriculture.
At the same time, Castro began to open the door to some elements of private enterprise, legalizing the use of U.S. dollars in Cuba. Small businesses flourished on the streets of Havana, with merchants selling car parts, cigars and more. While technically illegal, private businesses gave unemployed Cubans a bit of income.
Faced with grim economic times, Castro appeared to tolerate a certain level of rule-bending, saying in 1995 that he was willing to allow “unquestionable elements of capitalism” in the Cuban system.
But he refused to give up his socialist ideology, and by the 21st century he had begun to roll back earlier economic reforms. The government began to arrest people who used their cars or bicycles as taxis and even shut down small eateries in private homes known as paladares, which had begun in the early 1990s with the government’s approval.
Among Castro’s more successful efforts were universal health care and the near-eradication of illiteracy throughout Cuba. Thousands of classrooms were built in rural areas, and the country’s literacy rate grew to more than 95 percent. There were more physicians and hospital beds per capita in Cuba than in the United States.
But Castro’s Cuba remained a place of repression and fear. AIDS patients were confined to sanitariums. Artists and writers were forced to join an official union and told that their work must support the revolution.
The government conducted surveillance on anyone suspected of dissent. In 1965,, Castro admitted to holding 20,000 political prisoners. Some foreign observers thought the number might be twice as high. Numerous historians and human rights groups concluded that Castro’s government carried out thousands of political executions.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans simply left, most of them for the United States, flooding mainly into Florida and creating a politically influential bloc of anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Miami. At first, travel was legal, but Castro soon imposed restrictions.
In April 1980, he opened the port of Mariel to any Cuban wishing to leave. More than 125,000 people – branded as “worms” and “scum” by Castro’s government – took advantage of the highly publicized “boatlift” before it was closed in October of that year. Among those encouraged to leave were convicts, AIDS patients, the mentally ill and other “antisocial” elements deemed undesirable by Cuban officials.
By 1994, economic conditions in Cuba were so bad that riots in Havana were followed by another exodus. Thousands fled from the country’s beaches on makeshift rafts; many were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard, and others perished at sea.
In February 1996, the Cuban air force shot down two light planes belonging to an exile group in Miami that Havana claimed violated Cuban airspace. President Bill Clinton retaliated by signing the Helms-Burton Act, which further tightened the decades-old embargo.
But Castro’s relations with other countries seemed to improve. When the United Nations convened for its 50th anniversary in 1995, the Cuban leader delivered a much-anticipated address to the U.N. General Assembly. Without mentioning the United States, he called for “a world without ruthless blockades that cause the death of men, women and children, youths and elders, like noiseless atom bombs.”
In 1999, Castro sparred with the United States over the fate of Elián González, a young Cuban boy rescued at sea after his mother and her boyfriend drowned trying to reach the United States. U.S. courts eventually ruled that the boy should be returned to his father in Cuba, giving Castro a huge symbolic victory.
Castro’s difficult relationship with the Catholic Church also improved over the years. A former altar boy educated by Jesuits, Castro reinstated Christmas as an official holiday when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998. He greeted Pope Benedict XVI when he visited Havana in March 2012.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States marked the beginning of new lows in U.S.-Cuba relations. Castro’s initial response to the attacks was remarkably conciliatory, and he expressed his “profound grief and sadness for the American people.” Cuban musicians donated blood for the attack victims, and Castro offered other humanitarian aid, which was ignored by the George W. Bush administration.
After Bush announced his “war on terrorism,” Castro said the call to arms could turn into a “struggle against ghosts they don’t know where to find.”
The U.S. government housed suspected terrorists at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which had been in U.S. hands since 1903. Castro, who had long demanded that the base be returned to Cuban possession, refused to cash the checks the U.S. government sent each month as rent for Guantanamo.
With the advancing years, Castro grew more beleaguered. In 2003, he ordered the arrests of 75 human rights activists, journalists and dissidents who were later convicted on charges of collaborating with the United States to subvert the government. Sentenced to terms of six to 28 years in prison, the dissidents were freed in 2010 and 2011 through the intervention of the Catholic Church.
“This is a war against peace and against pacifists,” Oswaldo Payá, a leading dissident, told The Post in 2003. Payá, who said the Cuban government was using Soviet KGB-like tactics to silence dissents, was killed in a July 2012 car crash that his family and human rights groups allege was caused by Cuban government agents.
For someone who was a public figure for decades, Castro obsessively guarded details of his private life. The names and photographs of his family members rarely appeared in the media, and most Cubans did not know where their leader lived.
Rumors about his private life abounded. From the 1980s until his death, he was reportedly married to Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he had five sons. But many accounts say the closest partner in his life was Celia Sánchez, who was with him from his days as a guerrilla in the mountains and died in 1980.
He was said to have had many mistresses but was secretive about his female companions. For decades Vilma Espín de Castro, a fellow revolutionary and the wife of Raúl Castro, acted as a de-facto first lady at public events.
According to published accounts, Castro had as many as 11 children with four women. One of his daughters, Alina Fernández Revuelta, defected to the United States and became an outspoken opponent of her father.
“When people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word,” she told the Miami Herald. “Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant.”
None of Castro’s children in Cuba appeared to be involved in the country’s political life.
Two nephews of Castro’s first wife became Republican U.S. congressmen from Florida. Lincoln Diaz-Balart served from 1993 until his retirement in 2011, when he was succeeded by his younger brother, Mario Diaz-Balart.
Even as his country crumbled around him, and communist regimes toppled across the globe, Castro remained a true believer in the revolution he had wrought. To the end, and for better or worse, he held true to the maxim he often espoused: “Socialism or death.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Kevin Sullivan, J.Y Smith